Mark of the Ninja is the most immediately gratifying and accessible stealth game I have ever played. I typically shy away from more complex titles like Splinter Cell, but also desire more challenge out of something straightforward like BatmanArkham City. Developer Klei Entertainment strikes a perfect balance between two extremes. The gameplay is multifaceted, though the streamlined controls allow players to peel away the complex layers effortlessly.

There is nothing narratively groundbreaking in Mark of the Ninja. It is about a clan of ninjas who possess a supply of mystical flowers which are used to make ink for magical tattoos. Those who bare such tattoos are endowed with superhuman abilities. However, the downside is the markings eventually drive you to insanity, which means the wearer must end his life as a fail-safe. Players take on the role of the ninja champion, who acquires the tattoos so that he may seek revenge on a mercenary band that attacked his clan. I found it to be more interesting on paper than in execution. Most characters are disposable, especially your female companion Ora. Ora simply shadows you during missions and offers tutorials for new mechanics, then disappears. The rest of the cast is even less present and more cliché. Really the only redeeming elements of the story are all the twists and turns near the conclusion. You are led on string the whole game and it only ramps up in the last third. In fact, you could make a case that the entire middle of the game is devoid of writing. Regardless, the entire affair had just enough context to keep me mildly interested in the overall outcome.

Fortunately, the engrossing visuals in Mark of the Ninja offset my lack of narrative immersion. This is due mainly to the fact that Klei uses the graphics far more functionally than aesthetically. Players can hide behind objects in the foreground and background, there are visible fields of light and sound enemies use to detect you, and being at a certain elevation can cut off your line of sight. Blending into the shadows is a common part of stealth games, yet somehow Mark of the Ninja makes it feel fresh again. I chalk it up the distinct art style, which feels like a grindhouse Samurai Jack.The fluid animations are filled with detail and intensity. If I had one complaint with the graphics, it would be that a lot of the charm of the minimalist design can only be appreciated on larger screens.

At any rate, looking cool isn’t nearly as important as playing well. This isn’t a problem as Mark of the Ninja is remarkably polished. The smart button layout makes the wealth of seemingly intricate traversal and combat options a breeze to perform. I immediately drew similarities between this excellent control scheme and that of the recent Arkham titles. In most mainstream stealth games, an absurd amount of patience and meticulous planning is required to take out foes. Eliminating a single patrol of guards can take several minutes and can get messy quickly if even a single error is made. In Batman and Mark of the Ninja, seemingly impossible situations can be overcome with speed and elegance. I didn’t always feel the need to memorize guard patrol patterns and lay traps, I felt free to cut loose and take risks.

Mark of the Ninja’s punishments aren’t too harsh. If anything, being spotted and then cleverly disappearing adds to the tension. This is great for people like me who despise near or instant failure scenarios in stealth games. I didn’t see a need for many of the extra perks and equipment players can access, because the default loadout can get you through almost any challenge. A specific ability might be needed to bypass an otherwise unbeatable booby-trap, but I can defeat any cluster of enemies in the game with merely a sword and common sense. Since Mark of the Ninja lacks adjustable difficulty, I had to create challenges for myself. This isn’t to say the game is a cakewalk, but I think it could have forced me to do more with less. All in all, it is a minor issue, and the only one of I have with the gameplay architecture.

In the end, Mark of the Ninja succeeds because it tears down the huge wall that intimidates players like me from tackling more intricate stealth titles. In the future, other developers should draw from Klei’s work when crafting their own stealth experiences. Evolution is necessary for survival, and Mark of the Ninja’s level of accessibility is something the genre needs to sustain itself. Granted, it’s hardly perfect. The writing and difficulty desperately needed some fine-tuning. However, I consider these small gripes when looking at Mark of the Ninja as a whole.

 

SPECIAL EDITION

You get what you pay for with the special edition content. For $5, you get a special prologue level that follows the tattoo artist Dosan from the main storyline. Behind-the-scenes developer commentary is also scattered throughout the entire game for fans to discover. Additionally, upon completing the new level, a new suit is added to your arsenal that allows for non-lethal takedowns. Other than the new gameplay possibilities that are opened-up by using the latest outfit, everything else seems like a poorly implemented distraction. The stage “Dosan’s Tale” isn’t as remotely sophisticated as most of the later levels included in the vanilla game. Also, the developer tidbits are interesting, but are presented in text bubbles that have to be hit to activate. Many of those bubbles are annoyingly positioned so that you have to work around them in gameplay or worse, they spoil crucial narrative right before it occurs. This was my first time playing Mark of the Ninja, though it was intentionally designed for people who have already completed the game. I recommend only buying this DLC if you are diehard fan looking for any excuse to boot up Mark of the Ninja.

Mark of the Ninja: Review
Pros:
  • Makes stealth simplistic but smart
  • Graphics aren't just pretty
Cons:
  • Story is slim and generic
  • Can often lack compelling challenge
8Overall Score